She’s in London, its cold as hell, she misses Barbados, she misses her mom. She kinda misses Katy. (This last thought maybe jars her the most.) Also, it's less than a week until Christmas.
Rihanna is probably the only 20-something pop star who’d choose to spend the few label-sanctioned lazy days that she gets a year preparing for an extremely non-lazy tour across Europe instead. But L.A. had started to run her dry, after she'd spent three non-stop months of recording effortlessly amazing pop music in seclusion. And then it had been New York--on the promotional run for Loud! and passing through every television and radio station in a 0.5 mile radius, permanently smiling brightly and sunnily (mostly because she found it hilarious that every interviewer thought cuddling up with Drake in front of a camera was what had put the smile on her face, and how each of them felt they were being cleverly coy when they hinted at such.)
But it hadn’t been Drake. Sneaking charming looks at guys through her lashes had come to her almost as easily as performing on stage always had. Both from as early as five years old--being the only girl playing in the shoelace-tying races at the back of school yards and managing to win without trying, and then singing along to her mom’s Mariah Carey CDs while getting her hair oiled and plaited for Sunday School the next morning. She’s turned each of these natural propensities into a full-fledged career, and that’s why she'd been able to twirl red hair around her fingers and smile at Drake (like she had on that one-off night way back in the day), and make it believable enough for the music video’s YouTube views to reach into the millions a few hours after it premiered.
In a weird way that Rihanna can only explain to herself, that’s maybe why she’s forfeited Christmas in Barbados. That's why she chose not to jet back into her home--with its familiar warmth and beaches, her dad’s fried flying fish and her mom’s corn pie. She didn't go because none of the singles on the album before Loud! had even begun to live up to the success of ‘Umbrella’. And because she knew there were some on Loud! that could, she dove into this tour to prove her best days weren’t already behind her; to prove it to the spitefully suggestive press, to her never faltering fans, to the countless, faceless bloggers--and to herself.
So she’s a hard-worker; and since shedding the star struck skin she’d had at sixteen, Rihanna’s quietly learned how this business works. For the few who’ve discovered the perfect formula of being suitably pretty, suitably talented, and superbly marketed, you’re made beholden to the media--particularly if the money you make is directly related to how often you're featured in the Billboard Hot 100. Rihanna has learned how it works. So she’s charming in the on-screen interviews, a little more cerebral in the print ones, and one of her personal overall career goals is to never appear on the cover of another supermarket tabloid.
Which kind of doesn’t explain why--a little after midnight on an anonymous Saturday--she broke up with her suitably perfect new boyfriend in a text message. Or why, immediately preceding this, she'd been on a couch in the corner of a cheesy burlesque bar just minutes from West Hollywood.
Or why, in that perfectly fearless mixture of night time and just enough screwdrivers, she'd been sharing kisses with a girl. A girl who has the same career and the same obligations that Rihanna does.
Katy'd been smiling though, her eyes laughing as she touched the corners of Rihanna's lips with her own. Her voice had been almost inaudible when she'd asked "Aren't you going to kiss me back, RiRi?" But Rihanna had heard.
So Rihanna maybe, kinda, possibly freaked. Not immediately after--which actually felt like two-charmed weeks of keeping that night like a secret between her and Katy (only talked about in the space between their brushing hands the first time they saw each other again at the European Music Awards, or in the sweetly dangerous text messages from Katy that would beep in Rihanna’s Blackberry when she was getting hair and make-up done before her scheduled morning talk shows appearances).
She freaked after, when the news of her break-up with Matt started popping up on the internet and everyone with a mike kept asking her about it, and around the same time Katy decided to go to India to do who-the-fuck-knows-what in the vicinity of no-cell-signal-whatsoever, and Kanye kept sending her emails of tracks he wanted her to sing on for G.O.O.D. Friday (a few of them amazing, most of them ridiculous), and everyone just wanted too much of the wrong things from her at the same time, and Rihanna didn’t have the breathing space to think about what she wanted, who she wanted.
And so she made an executive decision--the first in her official capacity as head of her own management (which still felt ridiculously awesome anytime she thought about it, when she remembered carefully inking Rihanna Robyn Fenty into that contract). She was going to go to Europe, she was going walk across stages for six months with her hair red and her bras bright, with sharp heels and insane make-up. Her label advised against it, heavily “suggesting” that she stay in North America to saturate the market with the album's first singles before committing to a tour. But she knew what she needed, she knew what her voice could do now (after hours of voice-conditioning throughout the year that she'd signed up for with her own money and kept quiet from her label, because it had been for no one else but herself and her live performances, her brand).
So Rihanna wanted to be on-stage again--it had been the only form of therapy that worked for her when everything else had failed last year, and she felt a hairs-length away from shouting get the fuck out of my face to everyone who kept telling her she shouldn't do it. But she went out to dinner with Jay and Beyonce (who sometimes simultaneously felt like her American foster parents and two ridiculously rich older siblings) just to hear them out and see what they thought about it.
And when Jay thought she was joking about leaving the country and seriously touring again, Beyonce had just said she understood-- that sometimes she needed it too.
Then three and a half weeks in Rihanna kind of crashed, feeling hammered by everything from the relentless weather to the more intense dance routines that she’d pushed for (knowing instinctively that the Caribbean rhythms on the album wouldn’t keep her body at center-stage, static behind a mike stand). Then slowly she caught up with herself and her own self-imposed workload, managing to shake off the foes of jetlag and fatigue the same way she always did—by indulging in Europe’s weird junk-food and crazily expensive fashion with equal abandon.
The night she performs on the finale of Britain’s X-Factor Live (her hair is in tight-curls and more auburn than blood-red now), she gets off stage and heads straight to the dressing room. She changes into the Stella McCartney jumpsuit her stylist hands her and drinks some apple juice, then idly wonders if it would be weird to ask for socks in her next tour rider. She listens to her crew’s post-show chatter and feels good, but weirdly tetchy under her skin. Rihanna knows this feeling; it’s the adrenaline that always spikes when she hears her name amplified in the throats of thousands of people, it's the adrenaline that’s now being forced to settle under her skin. It feels weird, almost as if half her body is in the middle of a bungee jump and the other half is curled up in sleep.
Rihanna leaves the room and goes out into the hallway, tugging on her curls and considering calling her hairstylist in the morning to cut it in a straight, shiny, chin-length bob. She remembers taking control of it for the first time at 18, with a pair of scissors and a packet of black dye the night her A & R dismissed her interest in commissioning producers with more complex sounds for her third album (more assertive guitars, more assertive lyrics). She remembers always silently comforting herself in those moments that had felt so hopeless in the earliest days of career--when she'd been getting inches upon inches of effortlessly straight honey-brown Tropical Barbie hair sewn into her own before every photoshoot, or when she'd been memorizing lines for a cringe-worthy 60 second cameo in a made-for-tv Bring It On sequel.
She remembers thinking, I have to establish myself as an artist before they'll give me creative freedom and If I make it to a sophomore album they'll let me write my own songs and Remember Beyonce started in Destiny's Child completely under her dad's control (back then she hadn't met Beyonce, but she'd been her signpost for everything), and she remembers how angry she'd felt in that meeting with the A & R. He’d said such any change in sound and image would alienate her fans and threaten her "precarious" niche in the market. Rihanna had stood up from the table without comment, almost wanting to laugh in his face at the insult, and protest at the implication that she would never earn the authority to decide what was best for her. After the haircut and dye job she’d gone to Jay, and he'd tugged at her hair like an absentminded older brother while he called some producer contacts. And after that he dropped in at the studio once to see how she was doing, and didn't leave until he spit 16-bars in the booth after hearing the chorus to 'Umbrella'. Rihanna wonders briefly what he'd say if someone told him they saw her in L.A. making out with a girl in a club (he probably wouldn't believe it), and it's when she slides sweaty fingers against the screen of her Blackberry that Rihanna realizes it’s the day before Christmas Eve.
She has no idea why this hits her like it does, but she stares at the Thursday, December 23 until the phone’s backlight automatically dims out. And then in that dark hallway Rihanna thinks she maybe does have an idea why. When she was a kid Christmas was the highlight of her year, mostly because it became a mash-up of ‘take your daughter to work day’ and the once-yearly novelty of Christmas morning. Her dad was a street seller downtown who always had a treasure trove of new stock to sell out of the back of his car in the days that led up to Christmas. Rihanna remembers always being the one brought along to watch the spectacle of people and lights, giggling when her daddy called her his pretty-pretty- assistant and paid her in pieces of candied coconut to hand out the toys for him. He always kept a special one extra secret though, hiding it somewhere until Christmas morning when he’d tell her to look behind his back—for a doll once, or the pair of men's Clark's Desert boots that her brother got so jealous of when he saw, then that tiny bicycle he kept hidden in Mom’s cleaning closet for half the year, and her favourite--the walkman.
She laughs when she remembers how she migrated all her mother’s cassettes to her own room and played that thing to death, and her phone lights up again in the midst of it--first with a text message, and then an incoming call less than a second later.
“Ri! Okay, firstly, what were you just wearing on stage? Secondly, why do you have it and I don’t?”
It’s Katy, who's probably back in L.A. For some reason her words make Rihanna laugh a little harder, and it feels amazing. She ends the laugh quietly, drawing out an “I don’t know,” slowly, still weighing the pros and cons of her next statement when it slips out on its own anyway. “Maybe you should come over here and get it from me.”
“Hmmm,” Katy groans, and Rihanna can tell she’s gearing herself up to twist the words into something that’ll both make her snort with laughter and feel awkward with the newness of this thing between them, whatever it is. Twist the words into exactly what Rihanna meant but doesn’t know if she’s allowed to ask for.
“Katy,” she interrupts, dragging the sounds of the letters out again, "Don't even say it." Rihanna feels like this conversation only exists in this darkened hallway, sluggish and stuck in a cold hallway across the world but protected from the deeper freeze outside, so it couldn’t be all bad.
Katy giggles, then Rihanna hears movement in the background—sheets, hair, breath—and then Katy answers, voice staticky on the overseas line.
“Could I really? I mean, could I fly come see you there?”
Rihanna draws in a breath and answers on the exhale, “Yeah—yes.”
She can almost hear the smile over the phone.
“ ‘Kay, maybe tomorrow then? So I could—I mean would that be too—“
“Yeah, sure no, totally," Rihanna answers, suddenly feeling all the work she's been doing over the past few weeks settle into her muscles--but in a good way, a way that means she'll go to bed after this and know she's been making the right decisions (or maybe just not-wrong ones). "We’ll be in London for like two weeks. So tomorrow's good. Totally.”
“Totally.” Katy echoes, voice laughing again, and Rihanna feels heavy with happiness, like she could stay in that dark hallway with the phone on her shoulder and fall asleep on the nubby concrete wall that feels slightly chilly from all the winter it's been absorbing.
They hang up and Rihanna goes back into the noisy dressing room, sits on the arm of the couch and eats some Oreos, her palms black with crumbs and her hair still red--for tonight at least.
But maybe, tomorrow.